Notebook, 1993-


The Place of Narrative

(From: Aronberg. The Place of Narrative - Mural Decoration in Italian Churches, 431-1600. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1990.)

Introduction: The Place of Narrative

Function and Form

. . . . Art historical discussion of visual storytelling began in earnest in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. . . . Roughly speaking, the modes are monoscenic, in which the main elements of a story are concentrated into one framed scene--the main figures are shown once in a defined space, performing a single action that telescopes much of the story . . . .

The place of narrative--its didactic role in Western church decoration--has always been recognized. Great cycles of religious stories were spread across the walls of ecclesiastical structures almost as soon as Christianity became the state religion, and they remained a major medium of public communication for over a thousand years. Two main streams of opinion concerning their function can be discerned. One is a tradition, whose starting point is attributed to Pope Gregory the Great [590-604], that assumes an illiterate public to whom pictures provide otherwise inaccessible instruction and models of action.(1) Gregory believed that the mimetic aspects of pictographic forms made stories, and the ideas they conveyed, universally communicable. This attitude became the cornerstone for Western justification of ecclesiastical decoration, and a long series of writers from the time of Charlemagne to well beyond that Durandus of Mende [d. 1296] continued the Gregorian precept.(2) The other branch of medieval tradition assumed a public at least semiliterate, for whom pictures and tituli, or inscriptions, worked together in explanatory symbiosis. This second point of view takes into account the intellectual component involved in learning to interpret paintings.(3) In fact, most medieval visual narratives include tituli and labels, making their exposition a combination of pictures and words.(4) As different as these attitudes may seem, their point of departure is the same: that pictorial art illustrates and is inextricably bound to written sources. This point of view has tacitly guided much of the thinking about visual narrative up to the present time.

Art historical discussion of visual storytelling began in earnest in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Focusing on figure poses, gestures, facial expressions, and psychological interaction, the analysis centered mainly on classical art and illustrations of the ancient myths and epics. Although bibliography on the subject had begun with Gotthold Lessing's influential Laocoön, written in the 1760's,(5) Carl Robert was the first scholar to discuss illustrations directly.(6) Out of the issues of representation came comments on episodic sequences, where repeated figures represent more than one moment in the story. Continuing the analysis, Franz [p. 1] Wickoff observed three types of solutions to the problems of representing the passage of time in a static medium, calling them narrative modes.(7) Roughly speaking, the modes are monoscenic, in which the main elements of a story are concentrated into one framed scene--the main figures are shown once in a defined space, performing a single action that telescopes much of the story; polyscenic, meaning more than one moment is represented--the figures are still shown once but are doing more than one thing, moving the story ahead by more than one episode; and continuous, in which the same figure is seen more than one time in a continuous setting, whether landscape or architectural, performing various actions of various episodes of the story.(8) Serial format and extended spatial ambients thus seemed to reinforce the equation between literature and art.

In the twentieth century the discourse became more technical. As George Hanfmann wrote, "Since all human actions unfold in time and are carried out in space, men, time, and space are the three major challenges which the task of story telling presents to a sculptor or painter."(9) Visual artists were called the "thieves of time," spatial tricksters, doing constant battle to overcome the inhibiting limitations of two dimensions and to create a variety of modes of circumvention.(10) Wickhoff's categories were carried forward by Kurt Weitzmann, who developed secondary characteristics of the main modes and applied them to medieval serial manuscript illumination.(11) As the logical conclusion to the "art as illustration" point of view, Weitzmann's categories remain useful, and his methods lie behind much modern analysis.(12) However, his conviction that large-scale narrative painting and other wall decorations essentially adapted illustrational techniques from manuscript illumination(13) inhibits understanding of the different forces at work in the two media.(14) These are differences not only of size but, perhaps more important, of function and finally of effect.

Today there is still surprisingly little consensus on the definition and use of the word "narrative" in the visual arts. At a symposium on the subject held in 1984, the moderator noted "a troubling lack of consistency in terminology [and] at the end of the two-day meeting, no single definition of 'pictorial narrative' had come to be accepted."(15) This gathering put itself in the context of two important earlier symposia on narrative, one held in Chicago in 1955 and another held in Chantilly, France, in 1982.(16) But whereas these earlier discussions had studied the relations between text and illustration with general agreement in granting "primacy and priority to verbal narratives," the Baltimore symposium eschewed such an agreement and focused unswervingly on the "visual aspects of Pictorial narrative."(17) There was thus an attempt to differentiate between the capacity of pictures to vivify a literary prototype and the capacity of visual images themselves to serve as the text. In the first case, "narrative" is used as an adjective to modify elements such as poses, expressions, and settings. In the second, "narrative" is used as a noun, meaning the lot as a whole. When the terminology of structuralism was brought into the discussion, it was suggested that the diachronic mode, the succession of images represented one after the other and the synchronic mode, representation in which all parts of the narrative are visible at once, can be combined to move the observer beyond the boundaries of description.'(18) [p. 2]

Such redefinitions are important, since they strengthen understanding of the difference between narrative illustrations and narratives that communicate in direct visual terms. As will soon become evident, we will be concerned here with visual narrative as distinct from any literary form, and its place--both its role and its physical location--in the architectural framework that supports it. . . . . [p. 3]


1. Although Gregory thought cult images shuold be forbidden [cf. on this subject Edwyn Bevan, Holy Images [London, 1940], he said that painting was "admissible in churches in order that those who are unlettered may yet read by gazing at the walls what they cannot read in books" [Idcirco enim pictura in ecclesiis adhibetur ut hi qui litteras nesciunt saltem in parietibus videndo legant quae legere in codicibus non valent; letter to Bishop Serenus of Marseilles; lib. 9, ep. 105, Migne, P.L., vol. 77, cols. 1027-28]. He says further that the function of paintings was, for persons "though ignorant of letters, to learn what had been done . . . by turning their eyes to the story itself" [Nam quod legentibus scriptura, hoc idiotis praestat pictura cernentibus, quia in ipsa etiam ignorantes vident quid sequi debeant, in ipsa legunt qui litteras nesciunt. Unde et praecipue gentibus pro lectiones pictura est; lib. 11, ep. 13 ad eumd. Seren., PL., vol. 77, col. 1128]. Translations in P. Schaff and H. Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [New York, 1898], 13:53 ff. Cf. the discussion in Herbert L. Kessler, "Pictorial Narrative and Church Mission in Sixth-Century Gaul," in Pictorial Narrative in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Herbert L. Kessler and Marianna Shreve Simpson, vol. 16 of Studies in the History of Art, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts Symposium Series 4 [Washinton, D.C., 1985], pp. 75-91. [Hereafter cited as Pictorial Narrative.]

2. The "Libri Carolini," published in 791, says that pictures are not to be compared with books as sources of edification, yet they are worth having for their commemorative and decorative value. Thomas Aquinus [d. 1274] says art is to instruct the ignorant, render sacred miracles visible so as to be better committed to mind, and excite devotion [Summa Theologica 2.2 q. 94, art. 2]: Durandus of Mende says, "Pictures are the letters and scriptures of the laity. For deeds are placed before the eyes in paintings, and so appear to be actually carrying on. But in description, the deed is done as it were by hearsay. In churches we pay less reverence to books than to images and pictures" [Rationale divinorum officiorum, trans. J. M. Neale and B. Webb as The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments [Leeds, 1843], lib. 1, cap. 3, no. 1, 4]. Louis Gougaud, "Muta praedicato," Revue Bénédictine 42 [1930]: 168-71, collects more than a dozen quotations from throughout the Middle Ages on this point. The concept is evoked again by members of the trecento Sienese painters' guild, who professed themselves "by the grace of God, the expositors of sacred writ to the ignorant who know not how to read." [Breve del'arte dé pittori senesi dell'anno mccclv: . . . Imperciochè noi siamo per la gratia di Dio manifestatori agli uomini grossi che non sanno lectera, de la cose miracolose operate per virtù et in virtù de la santa fede; Gaetano Milanesi, ed., Documenti per la storia dell'arte senese [Siena, 1854], 1:1 ff.]. For the extension of these ideas into the sixteenth century, see the remarks of Paolo Cortese, De Cardinalatu [Castro Cortese, 1510], vol. liiiv, where "the ancient tradition that sacred histories in church instruct and inspire the faithful" is repeated in the context of the Sistine Chapel, according to John K. G. Shearman, Raphael's Cartoons in the Collectin of Her Majesty the Queen and the Tapestrires for the Sistine Chapel [London, 1972], pp. 44 n. 1. See also Kathleen Weil-Garris and John D'Amico, "The Renaissance Cardinal's Ideal Palace: A Chapter from Cortese's De Cardinaltu," in Studies in Italian Art and Architecture, Fifteenth through Eighteenth Centuries, ed. Henry A. Millon, pp. 45-123 [Cambridge, Mass., 1980], esp. pp. 92-93, for Coretese's remarks on Chapel decoration.

3. Bishop Paulinus of Nola [early fifth century], said it would be useful to embellish the Church of Saint Felix "all over with sacred paintings in order to see whether the spirit of the peasants would not be surprised by this spectacle and undergo the influence of the colored sketches which are explained by inscriptions over them, so that the script may make clear what the hand has exhibited" [S. Paulini Nolani opera, pars I epistulae, ed. G. de Hartel, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 29 [Vienna, 1894], pp. 285-91]. See also Robert W. Gaston, "Studies in the Early Christian 'Tituli' of Wall Decoration in the Latin West [The Tituli of St. Paulinus of Nola]" [Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1969]; and Cäcilia Davis-Weyer, Early Medieval Art, 300-1150 [Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1971], pp. 17-18.

4. Dale Kinney made this point in "Words and Pictures in Medieval Italian Art," a public talk given at the American Association of University Professors of Italian, annual meeting, J. Paul Getty Museum, 21 November 1981, as does Lawrence G. Dugan, "Was Art Really the ÔBook of the Illiterate'?" Word and Image 5 [1989]: 227-51. See also Kessler, "Pictorial Narrative." Examples of literary inscriptions concomitant with, but not explanatory of, adjacent scenes are found in the cycles of Santa Maria Magiore in Rome [Cavallini, chap. 1 below] and Pomposa Abbey on the Adriatic coast, dated about 1300. Oddly, it was during the Renaissance, when literacy was on the rise, that inscriptions became rare in monumental narrative art. But see below, chap. 7, on the Sistine Chapel.

5. Gotthold E. Lessing, Laocoön, trans. Ellen Frothingham [Boston, 1898]. Originally published 1766.

6. Carl Robert, "Die Entwicklung des griechischen Mythos in Kunst und Poesi," in Bild und Lied: Archaeologische Beitrage zur Geschichte der griechischen Heldensage [Berlin, 1881].

7. Franz Wickoff, Die "Wiener Genesis" [Vienna, 1895]; translated by E. Strong as Roman Art: Some of Its Principles and Their Application to Early Christian Painting [New York, 1900]

8. I use these three categories for indicating how many episodes appear within one frame.

9. George M. A Hanfmann, "Narration in Greek Art," in Narration in Ancient Art: A Symposium, ed. Carl Hermann Kraeling et al. [1957]. Reprinted in American Journal of Archaeology 61 [1961]: 43-91.

10. Etiene Souriau, "Time in the Plastic Arts," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 7 [1949]: 294-307; Henrietta A. Groenewegen-Frankfort, Arrest and Movement: An Essay on Space and Time in the Representational Art of the Ancient Near East [Chicago, 1951]; Otto PŠcht, The Rise of Pictorial Narrative in Twelfth-Century England [Oxford, 1962]; Sven Sandstršm, Levels of Unreality: Studies in Structure and Construction in Italian Mural Painting during the Renaissance [Uppsala, 1963].

11. Kurt Weitzmann, Illustration in Roll and Codex [Princeton, 1947].

12. An important discussion of fifteenth-century narrative composition was initiated by John Pope-Hennessy, "The Sixth Centenary of Ghiberti," in The Study and Criticism of Italian Sculpture, pp. 39-70 [New York, 1980], esp. pp. 51 ff. The author suggests that clichés about "continuous" narrative as being "more primitive" than the single, focused image have blinded us to the true relation of narrative techniques to the develompent of Renaissance perspective. Cf. below, chapter 5.

13. For example, the remarkable instance of the Cotton Genesis and its relation to the mosaics of San Marco in Venice; cf. Kurt Weitzmann and Herbert L. Kessler, The Cotton Genesis: British Library, Codex Cotton Otho B VI [Princeton, 1986]

14. Cf. Ernst Kitzinger, "The Role of Miniature Painting in Mural Decoration," in The Place of Book Illumination in Byzantine Art, ed. Kurt Weitzmann et al., pp. 99-142 [Princeton, 1975]

15. Pictorial Narrative, introduction, p. 8.

16. See above, note 9, and Texte et image: Actes du Colloque International de Chantilly [13-15 October 1982], Centre de Rescherces de l'Université de Pairs 10 [Paris, 1984].

17. Pictorial Narrative, introduction, p. 8.

18. Richard Brilliant, Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art [Ithaca, N.Y., 1984], pp. 18 ff.

19. Eve Borsook, The Mural Painters of Tuscany, from Cimabue to Andrea del Sarto [Oxford, 1980]; Sandstršm, Levels of Unreality; Rudolf Kuhn, Mittlelitalienische Freskenzyklen, 1300-1500: Zur erzŠhlenden Malerei [Munich, 1984].



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